■ Punch-drunk. That’s what they used to call boxers whose unsteady gait, slowed speech and dazed, confused behavior resembled alcoholic intoxication, later referred to as dementia pugilistica—or boxer’s dementia—by forensic pathologist Harrison S. Martland, in a 1928 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Prizefighters including Jack Dempsey, Floyd Patterson and Joe Louis are considered casualties of the syndrome, now called CTE—chronic traumatic encephalopathy—to encompass the consequences of repeated trauma to the head sustained in other sports such as football, ice hockey, and MMA fighting.
__CTE’s latest victim is Patrick “Lights” Leary, the fictional protagonist of the new FX drama Lights Out, played by actor Holt McCallany. A financially strapped ex-heavyweight champ forced to turn debt collector for mobsters, Lights exhibits degenerative symptoms that an MRI confirms as brain damage, and will deal with the diagnosis while trying to keep it secret from his family.
__Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist and epidemiologist now chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, California, coined the term CTE in 2002 after he autopsied the brains of former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Mike Webster and other ex-NFL stars and found evidence of advanced dementia typical of patients in their 80s or 90s.
__“In my opinion, over 95% of football players suffer from it—from the mild to the severe spectrum—and almost 100% of boxers,” says Dr. Omalu, describing how blows to the head impact our brains. “After a while they start accumulating abnormal protein, and those abnormal proteins impair normal interaction between brain cells and impair normal thinking, resulting in a spectrum of symptoms ranging from cognitive impairment, limiting the ability to engage in complex thinking, [to] executive functions like managing money [and] memory loss.
__“They forget the way home or where they put their keys. It’s like early Alzheimer’s,” says Omalu. Other CTE sufferers have manic-depressive episodes, become easily frustrated or enraged, and can become violent, like WWE wrestler Chris Benoit, who killed his wife and child before committing suicide. At 40, he had the brain of an 80-year-old, Omalu’s postmortem confirmed. It’s no surprise that the Nigerian-born author of Play Hard, Die Young: Football Dementia, Depression and Death won’t let his son play contact sports. “Most retired players tell me they wouldn’t have played if they were told they’d be in the state they’re in today,” he says. [bw]